By Barney Blakeney
The impact of growth and development West Ashley mostly has focused on traffic and transportation, but the impact on Black communities where the residential flavor was more rural than suburban entails much more.
Charleston City Council Dist. 4 Councilman Marvin Wagner and Charleston County Council Dist. 8 Councilwoman Anna Johnson represent West Ashley constituents in their respective jurisdictions. Wagner’s district spans a vast area that stretches from Wappoo Road to Johns Island. Johnson’s district encompasses areas of James Island and Johns Island. The two representatives collaborate often, says Wagner, since they share much of the area where growth is occurring fastest.
Roads and infrastructure plagues Wagner who is serving his third term on the council. With some 3,000 permits for building construction in his district already on the books, he says population growth definitely represents a challenge. And he agrees the impact of that growth will be in black and white – the black asphalt and white markings of roads that woefully are inadequate to handle the amount of traffic that growth will generate.
“You better believe that will impact the Black community,” he extolls. Black communities West Ashley and on Johns Island will never be the same, Wagner laments in a matter-of-fact manner drenched with a southern drawl. Growth and development means more than urban sprawl and the loss of a traditional way of life, it means life or death decisions about emergency services and evacuation, he insists.
That’s how Johnson sees things as well. But she has another perspective on the subject. Most of the construction development that will bring people and the amenities they desire are occurring within the city’s jurisdiction. Getting people to those homes and amenities will require roads. And that’s where Johnson says growth and development puts the mettle to the pedal.
But gone are the farms where Black people on James Island and Johns Island once worked. Replacing them are new housing subdivisions that draw new residents. The rivers no longer provide the supply of seafood that dominated their diets. Black people who lived on the islands for generations are moving away to find housing and jobs. In the past the rivers and waterways provided the flow of food and shelter. Increasingly the blacktop of roads and highways do that as residents have to drive longer distances to home and work.
That’s the impact growth and development most profoundly has on the Black community, Johnson says. Food and shelter is farther away. Issues like transportation and infrastructure dovetail into their accustomed lifestyle. For some, that means moving away to get closer to jobs. As more farmland is transformed into subdivisions, Black residents have to be smarter about how they use the land they own. Growth and development is going to happen, Black residents must be smarter about sustaining their presence, she said.
The county’s focus on traditional settlements, areas where Black folks have lived for generations such as Sol Legare on James Island and Parkers Ferry on Savannah Highway, may offer some protections against the adverse impact of growth and development. But with an estimated 40-50 new residents locating to the area each day, “As the population swells we’re talking about maintaining,” Johnson said. “You can’t stop growth and you can’t bury your head in the sand. We have to get educated and prepared for growth,” she said.